Wednesday 19 October 2011

The end of the line for payment cards?

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Payments cards are a legacy of the last century.

Their design was necessitated by a need to be able to communicate the identity of the holder and the provider/guarantor of the funds. This resulted in a physical card format, originally paper, more recently plastic which has since proliferated in our wallets as both payment choices and payment providers have ballooned.

Originally used in the 1920's, the first payment cards were issued by merchants with customers having a different card for each merchant. Seeing an opportunity to simplify payments for customers and possibly to create competitive advantage, several companies in the late 1930's started to accept each others cards. However it wasn't until the 1950's when Diners Club, Amex and Carte Blanche came about that the wider concept of a payment network was created.

Now customers could use a single card to pay for goods and services and since then the expansion of merchants accepting these has grown to cover almost every conceivable category and territory. Indeed, the latest contactless cards are finally opening up new sectors like transport or fast food which have been stubbornly cash based up until now.

Whilst this has made life simpler by removing the burden of physical cash, it is not however how people think about money.

The use of these plastic cards has forced us to channel our purchases through them as we attempt to manage our finances but ultimately our finances are more complicated and granular. This means we tend to carry more than one card - a debit card for every day small payments, a credit card for personal spend, a second credit card for business spend, an Amex...just in case.

Even with these different cards, they still don't align to our budgeting.

When we save for a holiday then the payment for that holiday comes from our savings (which may then have to be moved to our current account to then pay the credit card). When we incur business expenses, we have to pay for these through our personal account based on payments made by our company which are then paid to our credit card. We're constantly moving money around to make it work in a convenient way and we just accept it as normal. It's how things have always been done.

Then I saw BankSimple and saw what the future may actually hold.

There are a number of great ideas and innovations within the BankSimple interface, but in my opinion, one of the greatest is the ability to manage your money within goals.

Essentially these allow customers to decide what they actually want to use their money for (new car / holiday / home improvement / nest egg) and then can allocate funds automatically to this. BankSimple make decisions about how to invest this (long term/ short term) and the customer is always in control, able to change payments, end dates or simply pause the goal for a while.

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This works because they are not forcing a customer to take out a new payment card or setup a new savings account to keep their money separate. Instead, BankSimple lets the customer worry about what they want to do with their money and they will work out the best way to manage this behind the scenes.

This jam-jarring prinicple is how people think about money. They decide on different goals/expenses and make allowances for these on a regular basis to try and manage their finances and keep within their "safe-to-spend" balance as BankSimple term it.

Where I think this could get more interesting is when you look at this combined with some of the recent announcements about mobile payments - from Google Wallet to Visa Peer to Peer. At present, all of these solutions have tended to look at linking in a payment card or bank account to make the solution work. The mobile wallet concept simply moves the payment card from a physical plastic device to a virtual one.

Indeed, Google Wallet allows you to simply swipe the screen to pick the right payment card before a single tap then allows you to pay, redeem a coupon and earn points. Launching Google Wallet they said:-

The launch reflects Google's efforts to simplify and redefine the shopping process for both consumers and businesses. [..] Because Google Wallet is a mobile app, it will do more than a regular wallet ever could

Whilst their desire was to redefine the wallet, instead all they've really done at this stage is substitute it.

Osama Bedier, VP of Google Payments is quoted as saying:-

Our goal is to make it possible for you to add all of your payment cards to Google Wallet, so you can say goodbye to even the biggest traditional wallets.

To me though, the bigger question is whether there is a need for payment cards at all?

In the BankSimple world where money doesn't visually reside within accounts and instead has more meaning attached to it based on goals and budgets, then you can imagine that these virtual wallets may be able to access funds in this more natural way.

  • When I go shopping, I should be able to pay from my household budget
  • When I pay for a holiday, I should be able to pay from my holiday savings
  • When I pay for a car expense, I should be able to pay from the allocation for motoring expenses

Don't have enough money in my budget? Well then simply extend me a line of credit for that purchase in that budget.

This would immediately give me visibility that my car expenses are in the red, and I can choose to pay these down more quickly. Rather than an aggregated, monthly credit card statement with every expense stuffed into a single number, i'd have real visibility of my money as it relates to my life.

Technology like Google Wallet is fantastic and i'm genuinely excited about what it will offer in the short-term. However it's going to take some real visionary thinking like that shown by BankSimple to truly redefine our relationship with money.

When that happens I think the need for payment cards, as shaped by the last centuries requirements may actually become a thing of the past and mobile technology will redefine not only what we pay with, but how we manage that payment.


Anne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne said...

I've been a credit card holder for quite some time now, and I love the convenience that this thing gives to me. I can always pay my bills through it. Purchasing anything online is also hassle-free. The only thing that makes a credit card risky is the presence of fraud and identity theft. This is the reason why PCI DSS has set standards for credit card companies to comply in order to prevent fraud and theft. Anyway, I look forward to learning more about these mobile payments.

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